Gov. Larry Hogan has pleased environmental advocates with plans to channel more money into a program that buys land for parks and land conservation — a fund long raided to balance the budget.
But the Republican governor could still be headed for a conflict with lawmakers and environmentalists over how to best revive Program Open Space, which has preserved 319,000 acres for state parks and helped create 6,100 county and municipal parks since its creation in 1969.
During his 2014 campaign, Hogan pledged to end raids on such dedicated funds.
He has called for reducing transfers from the program by $60 million over the next two fiscal years and eliminating them altogether by fiscal year 2019.
That is a promising turn for the program's supporters. The Partners for Open Space coalition estimates that $1 billion in revenue for the program, which is generated by a 1.5 percent tax on real estate transfers, has been diverted to the state's general fund since the 1970s.
About 65 percent of that money was raided by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, the coalition says, and neither repaid it.
"It's certainly moving in the right direction," said Joel Dunn, CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, one of more than 100 groups in the coalition.
But he said environmentalists are not satisfied. "I'd like to see all the money restored," Dunn said.
A spokesman for the Hogan administration said the problem is that transfers of the open space money have been authorized in state law for the next several years.
"That's something that is hard to undo in a single year but is a real focus for us," spokesman Matt Clark said.
Hogan called for gradually reducing the transfers in his proposed budget, but that depends on the legislature's approval.
Environmentalists are also pushing for more aggressive legislation that would place the real estate transfer tax revenue, estimated at $180 million this fiscal year, in a trust fund.
Under the bill, money could not be borrowed without creating a plan to pay it back.
Clark said the Hogan administration opposes that because it would further increase the share of state spending that is mandated by law.